Aretha Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the second year the ceremony was held to honor definitive music artists. She had more than 100 singles in the Billboard charts, both in pop and R&B categories, from the '60s through the '90s. She won 18 Grammy Awards before getting the lifetime achievement award in 1994. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1979. She sang at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968. She performed at the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, and at pre-inaugural events for Jimmy Carter in 1977 and Bill Clinton in 1993.
We’ll never forget that time she filled in for Pavarotti at the Grammys (1998), or that goose-bumpy good rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, and earlier during VH1’s inaugural Divas Live concert, where she made Céline Dion, Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, Shania Twain and Carole King look like backup singers. And who can forget her scene-stealing appearance in The Blues Brothers?
I could continue to list Franklin’s unparalleled credentials and appearances as most obits do, but for most of us who worshipped the Queen of Soul (who died on Thursday at the age of 76 from pancreatic cancer), it was never about industry accomplishments or accolades. I’m sure she appreciated getting them, and over time maybe even expected them. That led some to think of her as a “diva,” not in the operatic sense (which she proved she actually was) nor in the glitzy pop star sense, which despite her great taste in hats she wasn’t (she was way too classy for Mariah-style materialism). Aretha Franklin represented soul in its purest and most provocative form — its ability to convey and sway emotion, better than words alone or melodies without a voice, to make us feel why the music was created to begin with.
“Respect,” originally written and recorded by Otis Redding, was her biggest hit not because it was her best song necessarily but because she made it her own (Redding famously said that Aretha, who was a friend, “took the song” away from him) and she made it ours (women) too. The 1967 hit was seen as both a feminist and a civil rights anthem, and although Franklin has said she didn’t necessarily intend it to be a catalyst for either movement, her innate ability to evoke beauty and power in every composition she tackled, while also stirring up layers of emotion, made her the ultimate badass.
Aretha demanded “Respect” from listeners and she not only got it, she kept it, even when she put out lesser tracks later in her career, like “Freeway of Love,” or that “Jumpin' Jack Flash” cover for the Whoopi Goldberg dud of the same name. Aretha at half-best was still better than anyone, except maybe Tina Turner. But Tina had Ike pulling the strings in the beginning and it would be several years until she cut them and embraced the empowered persona that Franklin always seemed to possess, even when she was lamenting a broken heart in song.
And that’s the real kicker for many of us hardcore fans. Before and even after “Respect,” the bulk of Aretha Franklin’s numbers were about love. She captured its complexities better than anyone — male or female. Definitely better than the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown, the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson, the “King of Rock 'n' Roll” Elvis Presley (who also died on Aug. 16 and, like Franklin, was from Memphis), the “Queen of Pop” Madonna (who celebrated her 60th birthday yesterday, on Elvis' and Aretha's death dates!) or any other music icon deemed top “of” anything.
Aretha was tough but she was vulnerable, too. If the bulk of her material represents even a sliver of real life, then maybe she didn’t always get the respect she desired in her personal life. Shockingly, she had her first child at the age of 12 and her second at 14. The fathers were never identified. She was married twice, and her first husband allegedly abused her. They divorced in 1969, two years after “Respect” hit it big. Despite garnering fame at a young age, Aretha clearly had some challenging personal struggles. She was always pretty private but behind a microphone, all bets were off. Bad dudes got called out and good ones got called on.
I don’t think I’m alone in stating that Aretha Franklin’s music has been a consoling and cathartic go-to during dark times, especially after a break-up. It goes especially well with a pint of woe-is-me-flavored ice cream or, better yet, a bottle or two of wine. I think a lot of us have probably sat in a dark room, tears streaming down our cheeks, listening to Aretha, singing along, relating and relishing in her anger (“Think,” “Chain of Fools”), her sensuality (“Dr. Feelgood,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”), her joy (“I Say a Little Prayer,” “Baby I Love You”) and especially her sorrow (“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man”).
Listening to this powerhouse on both ballads and faster, funkier jams and absorbing her insatiable vocals has been and will continue to be compelling and, more than that, comforting. No matter what your mood might be, enjoying the soulful expression of Aretha Franklin isn’t simply a listening experience, it’s a spiritual exercise, maybe more than ever now that her soul has passed on.